NAOMI Alderman’s latest novel The Power is the unholy child of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain’s Sultana’s Dream. It is contemporary feminist speculative fiction that asks the hard questions, that never shuts its eyes to the cruelty all humans are capable of, regardless of their gender. It pulls no punches. It’s also a fantastic page-turner, a smart, capable thriller that sensitively handles the coming of age of its young female protagonists as they navigate a world where they are suddenly the possessors of massive power and yet remain in danger because of it.
In a recognisable future, women are at the top of the societal food chain. Gender wars have been actual wars. Glass ceilings have been shattered physically. And when a revolution is literally ignited, passing from woman to woman, setting each aflame with want and need and power, the world evolves into something new, yet somehow no different than what we know of.
The Power is presented as a historical novel by a man in a society run entirely by women, as he attempts to chronicle what may have happened to cause patriarchy to collapse. He speculates of a world in which men were not always the weaker sex, in which perhaps women had not always ruled with the innate power present in their bodies. He sends this book to Naomi, a successful female writer, to ask her advice on the matter, who tells him that perhaps he’d have more luck publishing under a female pseudonym.
Imagining an alternative world in which patriarchy is replaced with matriarchy raises some interesting questions
It’s a clever bookending of the novel, a fun way for Alderman to write herself into the story as a character in a world in which all the traditional issues associated with female writers are now the norm for male writers. The point, of course, is to ask the same question again and again: can there ever truly be a balance of power between genders? “The shape of power is always the same,” Alderman writes. “[I]t is the shape of a tree. Root to tip, central trunk branching and rebranching, spreading wider in ever-thinner, searching fingers. The shape of power is the outline of a living thing straining outward, sending its fine tendrils a little further, and a little further yet. This is the shape of rivers leading to the ocean — the trickles to rivulets, the rivulets to streams, the streams to torrents, the great power gathering and gushing, becoming mightier to hurl itself into the great marine might.”
One day young women all over the world find themselves able to generate electricity with their bodies, specifically via a skein of muscle that lies over their collarbones. In the world of The Power, women find that they, too, have their own version of this brute force. Not just teen women use this electricity; it can also ignite or awaken in older women. Soon, every woman is able to send a jolt of power into whomever or whatever she so pleases — some are able to control it better than others, some are stronger than a dozen women, but inevitably, every single woman the world over, at puberty or beyond, has the ability to generate electricity at will with her body. Not a single one is afraid to use it. Most relish in it, joyous at no longer having to be afraid.
“She cuppeth the lightning in her hand. She commandeth it to strike. There’s a crackling flash and a sound like a paper snapper. She can smell something a bit like a rainstorm and a bit like burning hair. The taste under her tongue is of bitter oranges. The short man is on the floor now. He’s making a crooning wordless cry. His hand is clenching and unclenching. There’s a long, red scar running up his arm from his wrist. She can see it even under the blond hair: it’s scarlet, patterned like a fern, leaves and tendrils, budlets and branches. Her mum’s mouth is open, she’s staring, her tears are still falling.”— Excerpt from the book
Is it a virus? A mutant, evolutionary reaction to a nerve gas? A feminist conspiracy come to life? Witchcraft? Whatever it is, it is first assumed to be short-lived — an antidote to the women’s new-found ability will be developed and life and power balances will return to normal; though of course, who gets to decide what ‘normal’ is? Why must the norm be patriarchy and a male-dominated world?
The Power is told from four perspectives, four protagonists carrying the narrative forward evenly: Roxy the powerful, Allie the holy mother, Margot the politician, and Tunde the journalist, whose career is made when he films a young girl in Nigeria use her power. His is the only male perspective in the novel, a vital one if we are to know how the other half feels. Roxy’s power unleashes when she is witness to a violent crime in her own home. Her father, a London mob boss, takes her on as his right-hand woman, her unlimited ability helping her become a vital part of his dodgy and dangerous business deals. Allie uses her power to get away from an abusive foster family, and by listening to the voice inside her head she is able to take on the role of Mother Eve, gathering dozens of young women under her wing as she creates something more than a cult, closer to a religion based on this great new seismic change in gender balance. Margot finds that her new abilities allow her to take over political office in ways she had not imagined, while her own daughter struggles with the same power. The women’s lives interconnect at some point, though each has her own path to tread, too.
Across the world, women-led states arise. There are sexual revolutions of the violent kind. Men are controlled in the way women have been forever — Sultana’s Dream once again comes to mind, given that the world Hossain created also had the men safely ensconced within walls and removed from all decision-making. It was a perfect utopia for women, but Hossain never ventured into the world of the subordinate men. In Alderman’s novel it is clear that the men aren’t happy and it is exactly because they are now being forced to live the lives women always have. There is still rape and war and gendered crime and murder and domestic violence — it’s just not the men that are committing it. Is it more shocking to see women commit heinous crimes, particularly rape and sexual abuse, than to see men do the same? Why? Because we assume women to be the gentler, milder, nicer gender? Alderman is provocative, bold and ruthless in pointing out that this is an entirely baseless assumption — a patriarchal, sexist assumption.
If women had the brute physical strength to simply take what they wanted, to assume control over all society, to elevate themselves in the pecking order, why do we assume they would be nicer, or more nurturing about it? Why do we assume women in general are gentler or kinder people? Is one gender more prone to violence naturally, or because they have the greater physical power? Armed with the ability to defend themselves ruthlessly, women may well react to the heady mix of absolute power and absolute strength in the same way men always have in extreme situations. Gendered violence, sexism, control over reproduction, and wars would all still exist, says Alderman, only with the flow of control moving in the opposite direction.
Alderman is a writer with many interests and abilities. She’s part of Granta magazine’s ‘Best of’, she’s won the 2006 Orange Award for New Writers, she’s been mentored by Margaret Atwood, she’s been a game designer and is co-creator and writer of the training app Zombies, Run!. The Power is a lightning strike of a novel — bright, fierce, one that will leave you shocked, possibly because its very premise appears to be so simple. In the afterword, Alderman references a pair of images used in the novel, both of which will be familiar to Pakistani readers as two of the best known artefacts found at Moenjodaro. Alderman explains why she chose to adapt and use them as part of her alternative history: “We don’t know much about the culture of Moenjodaro — there are some findings that suggest that they may have been fairly egalitarian in some interesting ways. But despite the lack of context, the archaeologists who unearthed them called the soapstone head […] ‘Priest King’, while they named the bronze female figure […] ‘Dancing Girl’. They’re still called by those names. Sometimes I think the whole of this book could be communicated with just this set of facts and illustrations”. And in that, she’s proved her point.
The reviewer is editor of the Apex Book of World SF 4. She also hosts the interview podcast Midnight in Karachi at Tor.com.
By Naomi Alderman
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, December 18th, 2016